As one of Zay Jones’s harshest critics last year, I was on record as saying that he’d need more than normal improvement in his second year to cut it as an NFL receiver. A respectable yards-per-catch in 2017 was dragged down by the anchor of a truly sub-par catch rate. In his rookie year, Jones seemed to struggle to build chemistry and confidence. This season has seen an overall reduction in offensive play and production for the Buffalo Bills. Zay Jones though? He’s made a big jump.
This is from the Wild Card round last year. Most of the criticism directed Zay Jones’s way related to his ability to acclimate to the NFL and synchronize with his team. One thing that should not have been critiqued was effort. Here, Jones runs a route well enough. When he sees the play has developed elsewhere he immediately finds a person to block. This is nothing if not completely normal for Jones.
This is as good a play as any to encompass Jones’s 2017 season. On shorter finesse routes he was able to get open pretty consistently. When timing plays popped into the offense things generally went alright—it’s the little things that can sink you though. Notice that Jones creeps away from the line-to-gain ever so slightly. Had he run his route flat he’d catch the ball a hair later but closer to the sticks. Teeny-tiny things kept Jones from being the receiver we all hoped for in 2017.
Here we are in the present season. On this crossing route, Jones’s initial cut gives him a step on the defender. There’s some clutter in the throwing lanes to Jones, but a well-timed pass with a little touch is likely a first down. Thus begins our pattern. For a timing quarterback, Jones provides plenty of opportunities for chunk plays such as this.
The clip pretty much says it all. In less than a second, Jones has gone from sprinting in one direction to ready to catch a pass in the other direction. Tramon Williams is stride-for-stride with Jones to start, but this quick change of direction results in a cushion of nearly three yards. While there’s not much room for yards-after-catch, there’s opportunity in plays like these. As team chemistry increases, the hope is that the Bills can find these quick gains to keep the offense on the field. Jones has refined these cuts in 2018 and could be a consistent option.
I hate to say “I told you so” but... Well alright, I’m perfectly fine saying it. The quick plant works just as well (if not even better) than the last play. The pass is likely a little late and any chance at turning upfield is lost.
If everything goes according to plan, this is as close to a crystal ball as I think I can give you. Josh Allen trusts Jones and lets the ball rip on time. These quick breaks by Jones can be lethal at a few levels of the field. If this kind of rapport can be built between these two, the future could be bright for the Bills. Coming back to Earth on this, both players have some work to do to aim for a consistent ability to pull this off.
The Bills could do the team a favor and look for someone who is better able to take the top off the defense. At full speed ahead, Jones’ ability to quickly change direction is negated (as is the case with just about everyone because of physics). Without that skill to fall back on, he’s generally blanketed. This is less a knock on Jones, and more a statement that the team still has a few things to sort out. Jones is asked to do a lot as a result of a lack of other options, which will put him in disadvantageous positions on occasion.
Sometimes Jones’s struggles are due to circumstances out of his control. Like poor officiating. This play is included as it was frequently referenced and asked about. Jones runs a good timing route and Allen has him for a big gain. Unfortunately, Jones is blasted well before the ball gets to him and for some reason no flag is thrown. There’s no defense of the non-call—the only possible explanation is that Tyrann Mathieu was also going for the ball. In order to do that though, he’d have had to work toward the right side of the screen. Instead, he very obviously just demolishes Zay Jones.
If nothing else, Brian Daboll has seen the global value that Jones brings to the table. Jones has seen a significant increase in playing time this year under Daboll. A big reason is likely that he is a willing and able blocker. The continuous improvement of Zay Jones and the on-field effort have been a silver lining for the Bills’ offense.